Do you know what everyday racism looks like? Sami Jankins keeps her eyes open to it.
Even now, I don’t know if I’m the correct person to be writing this so please bear with me. I was raised in a multi-religious household – my dad is Jewish and my mom Catholic. If you know statistics on Jewish-mixed marriages, the percentage is probably climbing, but my mom is more likely to be asked where “her people” came from (in Eastern Europe) by an elderly Jewish woman at some family gathering than it be assumed she is anything else. My mom is also a quarter Native American. Her grandfather passed for white to get jobs when he moved to the North. Being Native American wasn’t something that was celebrated with pride. To my immediate family though, it was important I acknowledged and celebrated all aspects of my heritage. It was also very important to my parents that the dolls I played with were an accurate representation of society – not everyone is white with blonde hair and blue eyes, something I wish more parents would consider. My Barbie dolls that were initially picked out for me ranged in ethnicity. As for the dolls I picked when I became old enough to have an opinion – an Indian baby doll and the American Girl doll, Addie, who is black. I was taught not to pretend we live in a colorblind society, but to see race and to learn.
I didn’t realize the world could be cruel until I was an eight year old fifth grader. I went to a special religious elementary school whose views were that Jewish people were going to Hell. My parents weren’t aware of this when they placed me in the school. They just wanted me in a private school that could cater to my advanced needs, definitely a privilege. When my school had our unit on the Holocaust, my classmates couldn’t understand why it mattered or how it was an atrocity. Weren’t they going to Hell anyways? A few kids asked if I was going to hell, and some began to draw swastikas on themselves. I remember feeling so small. I remember feeling sick.
I wouldn’t feel this specific feeling again until I was twelve. I had my first “boyfriend” or whatever you would call someone who doesn’t live in your city, you think is cute, he thinks you’re cute too, and sometimes you e-mail and talk on the phone. He was a long-time family friend, and I thought I had hit the jackpot. I still call his little sister my sister, and she’s listed as such on Facebook. He was the cutest fifteen year old I had ever met and he liked me. I proudly brought pictures with me of him on the first few days of high school. I expected people to be surprised at what a catch he was (and still happens to be). I was shocked by the bevy of racist remarks I received. I was asked about every black male stereotype in minutes. I was mocked because he was black. I didn’t understand why that this was programmed in as the immediate reaction of the kids I knew. A response programmed in that young can only start at home. As for “the boyfriend”, he offered to steal his parents’ car to drive the 90 minutes to take me to my first Homecoming. An adorable kid thought with an entirely high lack of foresight. When I think now of if he would have gone through with his poorly planned idea and been caught – how would the media have framed him? I’ve thought a lot about him over the last few weeks with everything that’s happened in Ferguson although I don’t know his specific feelings on the matter. These days, he’ll be turning 30 in a few months and works for an impressive company that flies him all over the globe. As I look through his Facebook photos, I see some at a gun range. If something were to happen, I’m certain these are the photos they would show next to his name. I hate thinking like that, but it’s reality.
Well over a decade later I was in a high priced store in downtown Chicago with my then boyfriend who was Indian. I hate clothes shopping, but he had a thing for nice suits. He had just purchased a $2000 suit from a specific store a few months earlier and had it shipped to him since he lived out of the area. We were browsing that store and after about twenty minutes realized that no one had offered us help. There were clearly salespeople available. “Just watch what happens,” he said to me. We split up, but he was in eyesight. A white male salesperson completely ignored that my boyfriend was there. My boyfriend at the time even tried to draw his attention, to no avail. The salesperson wouldn’t help him. Then the man spotted me, and came right over to ask if I needed help. This wasn’t an affordability thing. My ex was dressed to the nines and I looked like a hippie (as I do much of the time). When the salesperson asked if I needed help, I pointed out my boyfriend who had been trying to get attention. “He’s the one looking for help.” It was only then that the store acknowledged his presence. As if out of nowhere, the only non-white salesperson came over to help him. Suffice to say my boyfriend explained in detail all of the money he had spent there and how he wouldn’t be coming back. I could only stand with my jaw dropped. I knew these things occurred, but you don’t want to believe it’s possible.
I’ve always felt that I live with eyes open, but at best I’ve lived on the fringes as a witness. I’ve tried to keep myself educated about the privileges that I experience. I live in proximity to one of the most segregated cities in the country – Milwaukee. Little kids are getting shot in the park during the daytime. Poverty levels are high at nearly 30%. Wisconsin is the worst state to raise a black child. I stay conscious of these statistics because I don’t want to be another person who chooses not to care because it doesn’t affect me directly. I don’t want my city to be the next Ferguson for the media to play up on Primetime TV. Even with my eyes open, I still can’t fully know the experience. I don’t want this to be the world of my someday future kids. I don’t want my friends’ someday future kids to have to continue to fight for equality. I want the dialogue to continue so things can change. They must change.
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